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Prayer

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Isn’t it time that the basic belief in prayer in its traditional forms is challenged? We have a situation in which prayers are offered, both in public worship and in private, which assume the existence of an interventionist God, a sort of Eastern potentate who has to be begged for mercy, pleaded with for help in crises, and informing him, in case he doesn’t know, about the world’s or our personal needs. A tag is usually added of “through Jesus Christ Our Lord” to ensure that our prayer is carried through to the throne by a sort of Grand Vizier who can give us access to the divine being. However, we have no way of knowing if our prayer has been heard and considered, nor if it has been answered! It is at this point that theologians resort to vague references to prayers being answered in ways we do not understand nor expect, so we have to search for ways we can imagine our prayer might have been answered, rather like searching astrologers’ forecasts, or oracles’ opaque replies, to make them fit .
On a positive note, I can see that there are positive functions to prayer, like Increased self-awareness,, or expressing gratitude and appreciation for the good things in our lives, or voicing our concerns about others, or looking to a source of love outside ourselves for inspiration and hope. But all these are within an assumption that Someone Somewhere either does not know about the situation, and has to be informed, or does not care. Worse still is the temptation that, once we have done the praying bit we don’t have to do anything else - like taking responsibility for acting to make things better. Congregations leave the church feeling that they have expressed their concern over, for instance, the suffering in Syria and now its up to Him to do something about it. Over to you!
  Prayer is one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity - after all Jesus taught us to pray. But belief in an interventionist God was part and parcel of the world of his time. Surely Progressive Christianity must acknowledge this as an illusion - a fiction which we surely have to acknowledge is a fiction, even if we go on using it? Challenging prayer is asking people to grow up and stop looking up to the skies as footballers do in thankfulness that they have been enabled to score a goal, or asking for divine intervention to help them do so. Most of us instinctively “offer up a prayer”, especially in moments of crisis. But surely the form needs to change to reflection, self-examination etc. without the traditional framework of the oriental court?

     
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I am pleased to see this issue raised in the PCN forum. Four years ago I read Gretta Vosper’s book Amen – what prayer can mean in a world beyond belief.

Having laid aside my Anglican priestly ministry in 1999 after 37 years and joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) I had stopped praying.  The weekly Meeting for Worship – largely silent – was refreshing and invigorating, once I adjusted to it. However after some years I felt the diet of prayerful practice confined largely to one hour a week was thin gruel. Gretta stimulated me to look again at the traditional practice I had learnt, and taught, as an Anglican, but had now left behind. It is based on the mnemonic ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. By this time I had lost all sense of the traditional God but nevertheless I found I wanted something more as part of my practice.

I was no longer into expressing adoration of a divinity – but have found very valuable the practice of Awe – the wonder of the natural world, and all that exists. When I ponder on the birth of new life, the beauty and intricacy of the natural world, the delight of a magnificent sunset or panorama, the technological developments of science and industry, the creative relationships and skills of individuals, the self-sacrificing service of many in the most dreadful conditions – I am filled with awe at these, and many other aspects of life. I appreciate life much more when I “stand and stare”, reflect and treasure what I am in awe of.

As a young man I was trained in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of oral confession. I hated the obligation, and only once do I remember finding it pastorally therapeutic. I have been deeply critical of the sin-soaked outlook of classical Western Christianity for centuries. As a counsellor many years in private practice, I sought to help my clients look at both the light and dark of their lives, not just the dark parts. To be able to “give yourself a pat on the back” when that is appropriate, is important. So Self-examination for me involves looking both positively and critically at myself and my relationships, actions and motives. I then seek to learn from both.

There are so many things in life that I have often taken for granted, rather than taking stock and articulating my thankfulness for them. Now, when I stop and consciously recognise some of the many aspects for which I am grateful in life, I recognise how much my life is enriched by family and other people, by the comfort of my home and my standard of living, and recognising simple but important things such as my spectacles without which life would be both very limiting and uncomfortable.

I stopped taking a shopping list to God for things that need healing, changing, or providing, so the practice of Supplication has long left my daily practice. Instead, the Quaker practice of having Concerns features in my weekly behaviour. A Concern, for Quakers, is a matter or issue that one feels deeply about, and leads the individual to ponder what they can or cannot do about it. Often this leads to sharing the Concern with others. I now value the practice of taking time to reflect on issues that in the past would have been part of my intercessions, and consider what if anything I can or want to do about them. It may be sharing thoughts with others, writing, campaigning, taking direct action, or it might mean that much as I grieve or am concerned, I feel there is little or nothing I can do – and so, sometimes with a heavy heart, I just feel for those in need and can do nothing more.

So now for me ACTS no longer means Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Instead my ACTS are Awe, Concerns, Thanksgiving, and Self-examination. They are life-enhancing. I do not direct any of these thoughts to any god, but regard them as a natural development in my thinking and practice as I am inspired, challenged, encouraged, and motivated by the Jesus of the gospels.

Quaker practice

Quaker practice has been very helpful to me – the waiting in silence. Rex Ambler in his The Quaker Way – a rediscovery is a great help in understanding Quaker practice. He writes that George Fox, a key founder of the Quaker way, discovered “that you can make contact with the deep reality of your life, and that it is responsive to your need and the need of the world….When he was still and silent, for example, he was more able to hear something deep within him, because his own thoughts and fancies had quietened down…This then became the basis of his message. He would urge people to give up their reliance on books and the people who tried to interpret them, and to turn instead to a source of insight and understanding inside them.“

Fox wrote to one of Cromwell’s daughters, Lady Claypool: “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes.”

In the last year I have found a deeper understanding of the value of this natural practice from the Australian medic and researcher Ramosh Manocha in his book (and U-tube)  Silence Your Mind. He teaches and researches the benefits of being very still, and emptying the mind of all thoughts and images – which can be learnt and developed with practice. This creates the environment within each practitioner, in which creativity, sensitivity, insight, and general well-being develops. So now my practice is to seek to do that.

There is a great value in such disciplines – and none of these require being focused on God. I am grateful without having to be grateful to any particular source of the things and relationships for which I am thankful.

Michael Wright

     
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Thanks for these interesting and intimate posts on prayer. As I am also curious about meditation and silent prayer, I pursued your reference to Quaker Practice in Rex Ambler’s ‘The Quaker Way’ and found the following passage from Rex Ambler in Geoffrey Durham’s ‘The Spirit of the Quakers’.

Durham writes…

‘Here is a short extract from the work of Rex Ambler, who has done valuable work on the life-changing effect of Quaker worship on early Friends. Those Quakers used their Meetings for Worship to make profound personal changes to themselves. Ambler has used the same techniques in his own spiritual life and revealed a transforming practice that can enhance and deepen the experience of silent worship.

“It began to dawn on me that I had at last found what I had been looking for all these years. But not in the way I had expected to. I had expected, or at least hoped, to find an idea, an interpretation of Quaker faith that I could then put into practice. But it came the other way round. I found a practice, and out of this arose the faith. Not that I produced the faith myself, for the practice was and is a matter of opening myself to what is already there, receiving what is offered, responding to what is revealed to me. The faith was produced in me by something much deeper in me than my conscious ego, but something that made itself felt by twinges of conscience that told me that all was not well with me. As I responded to these and allowed myself to be shown what was really going on in my life, I became aware of the self-deceptions that made me think that ’I’, this conscious ego, was the centre of my being and my world - and aware of the truth, that my life was rooted in a reality way beyong my ken, but a reality that I could nevertheless trust. I had to use the word ‘God’ to signify this other-than-me which gave me my being, though I was aware intellectually of the impossibility of using the word in a logically consistent way. Paradoxical though it would be, I had to say that God was the source of my new-found freedom and joy.”

Rex Ambler 2002.

     
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Prayer is not words said to an imaginary deity but I [and you] are the prayer. It is by acknowledging a need somewhere [a person; a situation; etc] and doing something to right the wrong or to offer comfort… prayer is a verb not a noun! If you are interested in my thoughts about all religion being human creations / explanations of a dark glass glimpse of what Karl Rahner called the ‘Infinite Mystery’ have a look at one of my recent video lectures ‘The Unknown BCE God’ recorded in the USA in August. Go to my web site http://www.permissiontospeak.org.uk and on the home page left hand side Menu you will see ‘From There to Where?’ [the Conference Reader] and beneath that there are several videos [marked as DVD on the Menu].

John Churcher

     
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Thanks to Michael Wright for your very helpful contribution. I will keep it for future reference. Your history has much in common with mine.
Gerald.

     
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I too have found all these posts helpful; Gerald’s question, Michael’s testimony and John’s lecture.

It has been said that prayer is to religion, what rational thought is to philosophy. As our understanding of philosophy varies, so our prayers are expressed and understood in many different ways.

As some may lack the lifetime’s experience and training in different modes of prayer that others have accrued. It is really worthwhile to share the different traditions we may have encountered.

As these posts show, this may be through reflection and testimony, statement or even research into scholarly accounts. If anyone else is inclined to share their experience or research, this thread has the potential to continue developing into a very wide and stimulating discussion. As I need some time to read around this, I will post again when I have had more time to reflect.

Chris

     
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The Birmingham PCN Group has discussed the subject of prayer at our last two monthly meetings. We have posted notes on those meetings on our bulletin pages (see: http://www.pcnbritain.org.uk/groups/bulletins/birmingham). They are not as profound as the foregoing contributions, but I thought I would add our link.

Nigel Blakey

     
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I would urge others to click on Nigel’s link in the post above. His PCN group make very good use of our website to publish their meeting notes. You can ‘hear’ members different voices, as they each express their experience and understanding of prayer. The depth and variety is very interesting.

One aspect that comes across is the ‘logocentricity’ of our practice. It is quite rare to come across someone who thinks and prays in a medium other than words.

I recently worked with a group of women creating banners to hang from the church columns. The swirls of coloured paints were a very visual expression of faith (as prayer?). Interestingly, the artists still felt a need to attach large text ‘labels’ to the work of art.

Prayer may use words, but they are not always necessary.

Chris

     

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It is only in recent years that I have found the real value of prayer.  As a Quaker for the past twenty five years, prayer has been a silent experience within.  Awe at the amazing gift of life all around me.  A questioning of my inner motives.  A discernment of what is right for me to do in life.  That holding of others in the Light that is pure mystery.

However, this has deepened greatly in the last few years as I have become involved with Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation.  Prayer now is first and foremost those two periods of twenty minutes a day that I am in contemplation, a resting in God.  For me this is the deepest form of prayer.  There is no need for any words, as God already knows what I am concerned about.  My intent is simply to be open to that mystery that we call God.

It is in Centering Prayer that I am gradually transformed into my true self.  It is in Centering Prayer that those many distortions from early life are cleared out of the way to allow that mystery to shine through me more clearly.  It is in Centering Prayer that those many cultural assumptions that I have taken on board through my early life are questioned.  It can be a painful death of what I have held dear and close to me.  But as the Light shines clearer through me, it is as others have said, that it is that creative power, that love that we call God praying through me, no longer blocked by my distorted ego wanting its own way.

Without Centering Prayer I would not be deepening on my spiritual journey.

     
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Thanks, Richard. Once again such personal testimony is very helpful in building a shared understand of prayer.

I have just listened to Val Webb’s recent conference lecture via the Common Dreams thread in the PCN Forums. She briefly mentions the work of Simone Weil and her suggestion that ‘absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’ There are obvious similarities with your experience of centering prayer.

     
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I had a wonderful experience of prayer last August at a conference held at the Quaker conference centre at Woodbrooke in Birmingham, .  We sat in a circle in silence.  As a name or situation came to mind, a person would speak that name or situation, without explanation, placing it into the pool of silence around which we sat.  Our role as individuals was simply to hold what was said in the light - that is within our own inner silence.  WFor me it was like realising that ‘God’ knew all about each person and situation and knew what it was possible to do (for that which we refer to as ‘God’ enables all things without coercion or violence [Matthew 5]).  We left each contribution in the hands of the One - a most profoundly moving occassion.

     
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Thanks, Brian. It’s really good that more people are beginning to share experiences online and I think we should celebrate that.

Can I also gently suggest that we reflect on the suggestions for enabling lively discussion in the forums. These are just a few simple guidelines from the OU to help us participate and interact effectively.

For instance, do you think we’re ready to begin asking one another questions?

OU Guidelines (see Using the Forums)

Discussion can help you understand material. Participating in an online discussion takes effort, but it can also be the most rewarding type of activity in a forum. There are two main benefits of engaging in discussion.
• By pooling everyone’s expertise, insights, knowledge and sources of information you end up with a much better understanding of a subject than you could alone.
• By articulating your ideas, challenging other people’s views and being challenged yourself, you modify and refine your views. You can explore ideas much more thoroughly in a discussion than you can individually.
As long as you use the netiquette principles of checking you understand what the other person said, and criticising the idea not the person, then it’s fine to disagree.
A discussion typically starts with a question or topic. Generally one or more people offer their views on the question. If it stops there, that is not a discussion, just a list of opinions.
• The way to move on is to draw each other out, by asking questions like “What evidence is there that….” or “Why do you think that….. ” or “What do you mean by ....”
• The next thing is to find areas of agreement or disagreement. Don’t be too defensive if people disagree with you.
• Aim to build on what other people have said, to separate opinion from fact, and to look for areas the group has not covered.

     
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Gerald’s orginal question was:

‘Isn’t it time that the basic belief in prayer in its traditional forms is challenged?’

Followed up by a rhetorical supplementary question:

‘Prayer is one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity - after all Jesus taught us to pray. But belief in an interventionist God was part and parcel of the world of his time. Surely Progressive Christianity must acknowledge this as an illusion - a fiction which we surely have to acknowledge is a fiction, even if we go on using it?’

In response, I would prefer that rather than challenging a belief, we sought to promote and explain alternatives. Even if we don’t agree with others beliefs, I would prefer not to confront them. It creates divisiveness and separates people into ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups.

The wide range of responses in the forum has shown evidence of a movement away from orthodox conceptions of prayer into more spiritual and meditative forms. Ironically these ‘new’ forms are essentially similar to the ‘older’ forms of spirituality that existed prior to Church dogma and doctrine.

For example, Michael expressed his experience of abandoning traditional Anglican prayer after 37 years, only to find a more meaningful form in silent Quaker worship. John shared his understanding that prayer is an active process created by a person, often in response to another’s perceived need. The Birmingham PCN group shared a very wide variety of thoughts about prayer. After this, I confirmed the possibility of non-verbal prayer, possibly in other media or works of art. Richard shared his experience of centering prayer and meditation.

On reflection, no-one asserted the necessity of traditional forms of prayer, we all expressed our experience of alternatives. Whilst this might feel like an answer to Gerald’s question, the lack of overt support for traditional forms of prayer does not mean that they are discredited. It does suggest that society’s conception of prayer should be widened to recognise the greater variety of practice that is emerging.

In considering Gerald’s supplementary question, I don’t agree that we ‘have’ to acknowledge this is a fiction; we may think it, but I would repect the right of others to hold such views, if they wish. Much of religion is essentially outside the realms of (scientific) refutation. As faith, it appeals to a deeper, emotional response, as we search for meaning in our lives.

Do others think that our worldviews or intellectual constructions concerning prayer (for example) should be capable of change, as our own understanding evolves and grows?

Why?

Can we give reasons to support our opinions?

     
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As we’re considering different forms of discussion, it is worth mentioning an anecdote from Sam Watson at Common Dreams 2016. He told delegates about the ‘Punching Pastor’ of Brisbane, who simply found it easier to remove his clerical collar and live up to his name, when encountering different points of view! Well worth a listen online.

     
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Firstly I am new to this forum, so hello.

As a Unitarian, I take spiritual inspiration from many sources. As a believer in the teachings of Jesus, as others have said ‘He taught us to pray’.

Personally I see prayer, either silent or spoken, as a form of connection, a chance to focus our thoughts on our needs, those of others and the world in which we live. I see prayer and also meditation as positive energy in which we can seek a favourable outcome. Therefore for me prayer is about focussing our thoughts and energy.

So do we need to change the way we pray? Perhaps the question is do we need to change the way we connect. If we feel more comfortable praying or connecting in a different manner then that is what we should do.

     
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Hello Rick
Welcome to the forum, and thanks for your two contributions, both here and in the Wider Perceptions thread. 
Andy